Humans have achieved many remarkable things — we have voyaged to the moon, developed technology to communicate over vast distances, and created wonderful art, music, literature and philosophy — all because our unique human brain allows us to delicately balance prospective gains with immediate needs.
Yet, those more urgent survival needs (believed to be mediated by older brain systems that we share with many other animals) mean that we still engage in impulsive behaviors. And those behaviors, which once promoted our survival and reproductive success, are now suboptimal because we live in an environment in which long-term contingencies play an increasingly important part in our lives. The conflict posed by immediate versus delayed consequences requires reconciliation by multiple brain systems — a reconciliation that all too often discounts or devalues delayed prospects over immediate demands.
Science suggests that, despite our ability to give considerable weight to future consequences, we evolved to weigh the immediate and future unequally. For instance, if we spot food, then our brains still tell us that we should respond rapidly because it may not be there if we wait. In our modern world, however, the future is more stable — so although we may value a healthy diet for future well-being, we may nonetheless succumb to the immediate temptation of a sugary doughnut. And, although we don’t need (and may not be able to afford) a new smartphone, we are attracted to the immediacy of its bells and whistles.
All of these immediate temptations, and our tendency to succumb to them, result from a phenomenon known as delay discounting: Delayed consequences are discounted compared to immediate ones. Being healthy is a remote goal, but the sweetness of the doughnut is an instant pleasure. I can have the new smartphone now, but its cost will only appear on my credit card statement next month.
In a related fashion, immediate costs are also often given greater weight than much greater delayed costs. Benjamin Franklin found it difficult to convince Colonial Philadelphians of the need for establishing a group committed to firefighting to help prevent a catastrophic, city-wide fire. His ultimately successful argument: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Delay discounting is also responsible for another human foible: procrastination. When we have something onerous to do, doing it now would be unpleasant; putting it off for the future effectively “discounts” the discomfort.
So, although the human brain can rationally plan for the future, the “fierce urgency of now” often causes us to act impulsively. When we do, however, we often regret it later.
The tendency to give undue weight to the here-and-now also helps to explain the two most irrational and infuriating aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak: our sporadic and insufficient preparations for a pandemic despite decades of stern warnings from the highest levels of government; and our counterproductive efforts to return prematurely to our “normal lives," despite obvious historical evidence showing that doing so would feed the virus even more hosts, thereby extending how long we must live abnormally.
For instance, it is estimated that the funding needed to prevent the next pandemic is $22.2 billion to $30.7 billion. Although that is a lot of money, it pales in comparison to the expected $8.1 trillion in losses to the U.S. economy from the current pandemic. An ounce of prevention, in this case, would be worth about 16 pounds of cure. (The cost in human lives both during this pandemic and a future pandemic is incalculable.)
Our brains also have another problem adjusting to the coronavirus because we evolved to deal with “clear and present” dangers; evolution did not prepare us for dealing with the all-but-invisible danger that COVID-19 represents. We can’t see it; we don’t immediately get sick from it; and, when people do fall ill from it, considerable time may elapse for symptoms to signal danger.
Furthermore, the consequences of becoming infected with the coronavirus are not absolute or evenly spread across the population. And, although we hear that death is a real possibility, the statistics indicate that the actual probability of dying is not very high; so we dismiss that consequence as not applying to us — a phenomenon known as “probability discounting” — even though it is increasingly apparent that the infection can take a long-term toll even on those people who don’t show severe symptoms.
Both the lack of immediate symptoms and the (relatively) low probability of death mean that our brains do not take the threat as seriously as we should.
Beyond that, when it comes to issues of national importance — such as pandemics — we expect to be able to rely on scientists and health authorities to tell us the facts, and on our government to provide the leadership and policies to help us cope with it. Without clear guidance from government, many of us will regrettably revert to being controlled by our individual desire for immediate rewards — the pleasure of a party or social gathering, the sense of normalcy from an uncovered nose and mouth — and ignore the potential delayed consequences — possible infection and death of ourselves and others — of going mask free and frequenting crowded places.
Yet, understanding how our brains evolved to promote impulsivity and judgment biases can also help us — as scientists, as policymakers, as individuals — be more effective in our efforts to combat the coronavirus and to make more rational choices. We should all focus more on the long-term effects or rewards for our behavior than on its short-term effects or pleasures.